Anonymous Instagram account aims to call out sexual perpetrators in art world

Updated: Dec 16, 2018, 17:22 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

The founders of Instagram account @herdsceneand, which aims to out sexual abuse perpetrators in the art world, speak to us in a first-of-its-kind interview, addressing questions on why they choose to remain anonymous

Subodh Gupta is the latest artist named by the account @herdsceneand
Subodh Gupta is the latest artist named by the account @herdsceneand

On October 8, an Instagram handle called @herdsceneand was born with a post that said: "A male friend recounted standing next to two senior male artists who were checking a young woman out at the India Art Fair saying, "Man, she's so f******e". For the next few days, many such anonymous accounts of male artists and curators being sexual perpetrators were put up. It was on October 10, that they first took on the big names: "Don't we love institutions like @ serendipityartsfestival and @kochibiennale talking about 'no bullshit' codes of conduct? I mean the former has senior male curators who are known for inappropriate behaviour sexually and as powerplay treating assts [ assistants] like shit. The latter is founded by a bunch of predators. What a joke. Too little, too late." But then from October 14 onwards, they started naming perpetrators. From sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri to artist Jatin Das to Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) co-founder Riyas Komu to Sotheby's India managing director Gaurav Bhatia to the latest one: world-renowned artist Subodh Gupta. The account has multiple anonymous stories, with intricate details provided.

As the account founders say again and again on their feed; "This acct [account] and our survivors are not here to 'malign' or attack institutions but to hold individuals who abuse their positions in KMB and Sotheby's accountable, especially if it involves sexual abuse/ assault." In a time when the cry for victims exposing their identity seems to be gaining ground, we got in touch with the founders and posed some questions. Excerpts from a first-of-its-kind interview:

What prompted you to start the account in the first place?
We wanted to create a safe space where individuals who have gone through abuse or harassment within the Indian art world could speak up, and not feel afraid of repercussions and backlash. Most importantly, for them to not feel doubted and questioned about their experience in a way that dismissed them. We're taught to internalise so much of abuse — especially sexual [abuse]. The #MeToo movement gave us the courage to speak up. We could never have imagined the scale of trauma and the complex nuances of abuse and manipulation. We’ve been working tirelessly to help survivors as much as we can. We are not experts, just that we have gone through some form of abuse ourselves, and we have a growing group of allies now. Of course, the women and men who reached out to us are a wonderful group of amazing individuals as well. Especially when there's an imbalance of power or a skewed understanding of what being open and bohemian is, individuals, get abused. We wanted to create a space where we could be angry, sad, empowered — feel all of it, every bit of emotion as each person told their story without being tone- policed or told 'this is how you should/must tell your story'. Some may agree or disagree, but there's no rulebook out there to tell us how to do this. One can only learn and share and talk and that can only start if we first put across the experience in the way a survivor would want to articulate it. And that’s what we are doing. We started out by narrating experiences of misogyny, 'Anonymity is not illegal. It's not a crime. If we respect artists like Guerrilla Girls, why can’t our anonymity be respected instead of making us seem devious?' for example, and to also highlight issues that were a spectrum of abuse — physical, mental, financial or psychological. We wanted a space where we can build a community of trust — it’s not like we had a plan of how things would go. We have been learning at every step on how to be diligent and how to listen, how to be able to share stories so that it’s not dismissed. We try at every level to do our best.

Do you think that continuing to be anonymous is now proving to be detrimental to the cause? Since you are forerunners in this battle, is it leading to you not being taken seriously, as artists can deny the charge till someone puts a face and name to it?
Even while being anonymous we get attacked for it, imagine if we revealed ourselves. Anonymity is not illegal. It's not a crime. If we celebrate and respect political artists like Guerrilla Girls, who we deeply admire, why can't our anonymity be respected instead of making us seem devious? What anonymity tells us is that we've created a society where the most vulnerable, those who have been abused, don’t feel safe or protected enough to be taken seriously. They don't believe a fair and just way is set up to address their traumatic experience. We need to acknowledge that instead of being attacked for it. Look at Christine Blasey Ford [who accused Brett Kavanaugh] or any case where women have revealed their identity — they faced a lot of issues, including them and their families being threatened and intimidated and maligned and ostracised. It's really hard, you know? We don't want to be looked at as forerunners. Many women have fought these battles before us and we are continuing that fight today. We are just one space and platform. There's a lot more work to be done and we need more allies and supporters and spaces.

Are you yourself a part of the art world, and have a stake in it?
Yes, we are a part of the art world. We do have a stake, and that stake is very much connected to the work the account is doing — it wasn’t enough to do exhibitions about our politics. We needed to extend that and think of other forms of mobilisation and a way to really publicly acknowledge that we are a deeply problematic industry that hasn't done enough to protect its own. It is an industry that needs to introspect and needs to listen to each other a lot more in an honest way, without fear of repercussions and backlash.

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